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Talk of Facebook and perils of technology loom large at 2018 TED conference

Chatter about the perils of technology has loomed large in the hallways and stages of the TED conference in Vancouver this week, as Facebook's CEO faces U.S. hearings

Thought leaders in tech sector weigh in on pros and cons of innovation in their sector

More than 1,500 people are attending the 2018 TED conference in Vancouver this week, including many leaders in the tech sector. (Ryan Lash/TED)

Chatter about the perils of technology has loomed large at the TED conference in Vancouver this week, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces Congressional hearings in the U.S.

The conference, the source of many TED Talks online, attracts thousands of global leaders in the tech sector — on and off the stage.

The risks of technology were addressed on stage by Jaron Lanier, one of the speakers on Tuesday, the opening night of the conference.

Lanier is a long-time Silicon Valley innovator who is said to have coined the term virtual reality. His pals were some of the first to create advertising-based models for programs like Google and Facebook. 

"As the technology improved, it evolved into a full-blown continuous surveillance and behaviour modification model, and that is something that really is not survivable," Lanier told CBC News the morning after his talk. 

"When you have a society based on the idea that the only way for people to connect, to work together, is if third parties are paying to manipulate those people, there's no way for that society to not go insane."

Jaron Lanier speaks onstage with host Chris Anderson at TED 2018. (Bret Hartman/TED)

Dressed in baggy, black clothes, Lanier is a large, soft-spoken man with long dreadlocks. He's also a cult-like figure at TED, with fans approaching him like moths drawn to light as he walks through the conference's hallways.

"In principle some of these technologies could be beneficial," he said, referring to smart appliances and home devices. "The problem is that there's this other shadow side in which the data that they gather about you is being used to manipulate you."

That's not to say that Lanier is a tech pessimist. Technological advances have brought huge benefits over the years, he said.

He cites the virtual reality medical training models used to treat patients like his wife, who recently underwent cancer surgery. 

"Somehow the idea that you can't have the benefits [of technology] without the creepiness has become ingrained because a small minority of people make so much money off of it, but in truth they can be separated," Lanier said.

'It's not scare-mongering'

The potential hazards of artificial intelligence was the subject of Max Tegmark's Wednesday morning talk. 

Tegmark is a researcher at MIT and also the co-founder of the Future of Life Institute, an organization that aims to foresee possible pitfalls that artificial intelligence, or AI, may prompt.

The institute also wants to develop a positive goal for where AI can take society. For Tegmark, discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of AI are both necessary. 

"The more clearly we can envision a positive future, the more likely it is we're going to get it," he said. "The one way to make failure inevitable is to tell yourself that you're doomed and to stop looking for solutions."

Max Tegmark on stage at the 2018 TED conference in Vancouver. (Bret Hartman/TED)

Tegmark, a tall, lanky man, acknowledges that questions remain about who gets to determine what a positive future looks like, and for whom.

He also acknowledges that AI has potential for some dire long-term consequences. And he warns that simply learning from mistakes is an outdated strategy for AI.

"It's much better to plan ahead and get things right the first time, because that might be the only time we've got," he said. "It's not scare-mongering at all. It's what we call safety engineering at MIT."

Tegmark, like others at TED, also says it's not enough to criticize the status quo. People must put forward solutions for progress to occur, he said. 

'A new way of thinking'

That's the same refrain advocated by Cesar Hidalgo, also a researcher at MIT. 

"I could have come here and given a talk about how everything is wrong and how we should all be scared and I would have gotten a standing ovation," he said.

Instead, Hidalgo put forward a bold idea to bolster democracy during his Wednesday morning talk.

MIT researcher César Hidalgo speaks at TED 2018. (Bret Hartman/TED)

His proposal is a model of direct decision-making, helped by the same type of technology that provides you with book recommendations on Amazon. 

The technology — called recommender software — could give citizens the ability to vote on proposed policies. The idea is based on his decade of work with countries like the U.S. and his native Chile to aggregate large-scale data sets in order to make policy decisions.

Hidalgo doesn't deny that his idea might seem far-fetched, and he emphasizes that it's not likely to be implemented anytime soon.

"Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, thinking of augmenting democracy with artificial intelligence might be worth a shot," he said. "We have now new alternatives that have been enabled by new technologies that were not available before." 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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